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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): My right hon. Friend will be aware from the answer that she gave me earlier this week, which unfortunately I was unable to follow up because of traffic on the M4, that, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays--[Interruption.]
On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the Adjournment debate starts about 49 minutes later than it did during the first Session of this Parliament. Does that not reflect on the failure of the process of modernisation? Is it not time for us to stop bringing the House into disrepute by spending more time discussing the processes of how we consider legislation than we spend discussing the content of legislation? Will my right hon. Friend consider the matter in terms of when she timetables programming motions in the Session after the recess?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend was kind enough to send me a note of apology for her absence. That was entirely unnecessary: I knew that some problem must have arisen, because she is most assiduous in her attendance in the Chamber. I recall the figures that her question elicited, and it is certainly the case that a fairly sustained attempt has been made to detain the House later in the evenings than is necessary, by discussion not of the substance of Government business but of the processes. I accept that there is much room for criticism of those proceedings. However, my hon. Friend will find that a short but succinct and relevant new report by the Modernisation Committee has recently been published.
Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): Will the right hon. Lady find time to allow the House to debate and come to decisions on parliamentary pay, pensions and allowances in the first week after the Easter recess? She will know that a tradition has grown up that
Mrs. Beckett: May I say to the hon. Gentleman--[Hon. Members: "Right hon. Gentleman."] I beg his pardon. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am not sure whether that practice has been around long enough to be called a tradition? I am aware that there is often a recognition that the conduct of business suggests that a review should be carried out during the Parliament. Such a review has recently been carried out, but it was quite recent and I cannot undertake to stage such a debate in the first week back. Obviously, it remains a matter for discussion.
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): Is there a possibility of a debate on foreign affairs, now that we have a little more time? I ask this for two reasons. The first is the developing situation in the Balkans, where British forces are engaged and where there are clearly dangers that could lead to a wider conflict. The second is the developing crisis between the United States and China, which President Bush might use to justify the nuclear missile defence system, in which we would be involved through the use of Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. It would be sensible if the House could have a statement by the Foreign Secretary and an opportunity to contribute our own views.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand the important points that my right hon. Friend makes, but I cannot undertake to find time in the very near future for a foreign affairs debate. I recognise the genuine concerns that he raises, but a general foreign affairs debate that ranges across the world is more difficult to find time for on the Floor of the House. However, more specific debates on foreign affairs issues are more readily available in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): The right hon. Lady might have noticed, in answers to questions put down by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and me, that the previous Conservative Government put £4.8 billion into mining regions, in a mixture of money including redundancy payments and economic regeneration. The right hon. Lady's own Government have poured just short of half a billion pounds into economic regeneration in coal-mining areas. Will she consider an urgent debate into the circumstances of the west country, which would give the House an opportunity to consider matters such as the plea to the Prime Minister by the people of a region pushed to the brink by foot and mouth, issued recently by a local newspaper? The debate would make the point that if a Conservative Government were capable of pouring in billions of pounds for economic regeneration, even though there were no votes in it, it is absolutely right that this Government should consider economic aid to those affected regions that is vastly greater than anything that they have previously contemplated.
Mrs. Beckett: Of course I understand the case that the hon. Gentleman makes on behalf of his constituents, and his concern for the difficulties that they face. He will know that the Government have made it plain that they take those considerations extremely seriously. Obviously, we shall have to look, over time, at the impact of the crisis
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): My right hon. Friend referred a few moments ago to the most recent report of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, which was published at the end of last week. It is a brief but important report. Will she try to ensure that the House has the opportunity to discuss that report before the end of this Parliament so that, in the next Parliament, we can take advantage of its recommendations to ensure that the House works in a better way and scrutinises legislation as the report proposes?
Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I pay tribute to him for the serious, thorough and non-partisan way in which he, like most members of the Modernisation Committee, have always conducted themselves in these discussions. He asks me to arrange a discussion on the report. I cannot necessarily undertake to do that at the present time, but I appreciate the steps that he has taken to draw it to the attention of the House because I think that it will inform our further discussions and debates.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The Deputy Prime Minister said that he would knock heads together to get an improvement in the running of our railway system. Judging from the announcement of Virgin Trains that it is to raise fares on the west coast main line service by 10 per cent. following last month's cut in fares by 50 per cent., we seem to be getting into a surreal situation. Will the right hon. Lady ask the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House so that we might probe him on what has gone wrong between Railtrack and Virgin Trains, as it is the innocent passengers using the west coast main line service who have to bear this outrageous increase in rail fares?
Mrs. Beckett: I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend to come specially to the House to deal with this issue, although I completely understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. It is hard to see how that action will help to attract passengers back to the railway. However, he may have overlooked the fact that questions to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will take place on Tuesday 24 April.
Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): My right hon. Friend has already referred to the attention that the Government are giving the tourism industry in these difficult times. Nowhere is that more welcome than in the south-west. Will she consider having an early debate on tourism, so that we can draw attention to the can-do list of things which, in my constituency, where one in 10 people is employed in that industry, is far longer than the cannot-do list? Will she also urge right hon. and hon. Members to sign early-day motion 527?
[That this House calls on all honourable and Right honourable Members to visit Cornwall and Devon this Easter and to encourage their constituents to do the same, to demonstrate that the tourist industry is open for business.]
It is tabled in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) and for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) and myself, and urges people to visit the south-west during our rather generous Easter recess.
Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is entirely right about the need to encourage people to recognise how much of an opportunity to sample the delights of tourism in these islands is presently available. She is also right to ask for attention to be drawn to the opportunities that exist. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on tourism on the Floor of the House in the near future. However, she may well find that a debate in Westminster Hall is more easily obtained. Furthermore, she may recall that the BBC regional unit has made it plain that it makes extensive use of those debates. That could bring the matter to the attention of rather more people than a debate on the Floor of the House might do, as the chances of a parliamentary lobby covering such a debate are not terribly high.